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Photo by Florian, licensed through Creative Commons

The first time I flew with to London via British Airways it was out of spite; on a previous trip Air Canada had switched my booking from a flight that had seat-back televisions to a flight that did not. That may sound childish to you but since I enjoy flying about as much as I do being punched in the groin, taking away my only distraction from the fact I’m sitting in a chair in the sky was tantamount to a declaration of war.

Switching to British Airways was just about the best travel-related decision I've made - the planes have seat back televisions, the on-board staff doesn't fly about the cabin with murder in their eyes and if you know where to look there are seats on the plane that offer more leg and elbow room at no additional cost (more on that later).

What’s more, flying to England with British Airways gets you a look at Heathrow Airport’s newest addition, the very swish, BA-only Terminal 5. T5’s opening in 2008 was a failure of epic proportions, complete with lost luggage and canceled flights, but now it’s a sexy, well-oiled example of fine British engineering. Like Lucy Pinder.

I'm sorry, you were saying?


Fares:

Fares listed below are in Canadian dollars and represent the cheapest fares available for low & high season as of this writing. These prices should be considered a baseline only as there are endless variations possible, including the day of travel, any holidays that happen to be taking place during your travel period, etc.

For those of you traveling from the New York City area, note that BA flies out of both JFK & Newark with little to no price variation between the two.

These prices exclude optional fees for upgrade to World Traveller Plus, additional baggage or exit row seating, covered below.

Remember that you will fly the class you have paid for - upgrades are a lie, like eternal happiness and the bulge in David Hasselhoff's shorts.

From Length Low/High Season
Chicago (ORD) 7h30m-9h $1010/1350
Los Angeles (LAX) 11h-11h30m $985/1400
New York (JFK/LGA) 6h40m-7h20m $900/1220
Toronto (YYZ) 7-8h $870/1330
Vancouver (YVR) 9-10h $1030/1500

 

The cost of upgrading to World Traveller Plus varies by point of departure but you can expect to pay around $1,000 for the return trip. That gets you a more comfortable seat in a separate section of the aircraft, an in-seat power outlet (as opposed to the hoi polloi in back who have to share) and a choice of meals from the Club World (business class) menu.  Traveling first class on British Airways from New York to London Heathrow costs $14, 800 dollars for the return trip and cannot possibly be worth it unless Christine Hendricks is on board giving backrubs.

 

A boy can dream

Baggage:

The baggage allowance for British Airways’ economy class is your standard, “One piece of luggage at a maximum of 51lbs”, affair, so you’ll have plenty of room for the tin cup and inventory of #2 pencils you’ll need to start your busking career.  For the record, don’t actually try to pull that – I know someone who did and barely made it off the plane at Heathrow before the U.K. Border Agency shipped her ass back home.

 

"You were planning to stay how long?"

 

The fee for additional baggage in economy class differs depending on whether it’s paid in advance, coming in at $51 if you pay online prior to departure and $60 if you pay at the airport.

Passengers in World Traveler Plus are permitted two bags at a maximum of 51lbs each with a charge of $119/140 (in advance/at airport) for each additional bag.

The bastards in Club World and First Class are permitted three pieces of checked luggage at a maximum of 70lbs apiece, for which British Airways says it “will waive the heavy bag charge”. This is helpful to old money who like to vacation in the sorts of places where waiters can make change for bars of gold with swastikas imprinted on them.

All passenger classes are permitted one carry-on bag in addition to a laptop bag, briefcase or handbag.

Seating:

To remind economy passengers of their place in the social order they are marched past not one but two seating sections more luxurious than their own. The walk serves a purpose even for those who have upgraded to World Traveller Plus – passing through the cushy Club World cabin says to them, in truly British fashion, “Yes, you have money, but not enough to Matter.”

As for the First Class cabin, it has its own entrance at the front of the plane so the laity may not cast their common gaze upon the esteemed lizardmen of the Illuminati.

 

Ok, first class probably doesn't look like this.

The economy seats on British Airways flights have always been good to me – they’re not La-Z-Boys but neither are they the hard plastic torture devices used aboard Air Transat. Exit row seating is priced at $75 per person each way and is a great investment if you need more legroom or don’t feel like spending 9 hours staring at the back of someone's head.

Here’s a tip for those of you that want more elbow room - seats on BA flights are usually ordered in three rows of three but at the back of the plan on either side there are usually 2-3 rows of two seats. There’s no charge for selecting these seats and they have a little bit of extra leg room, making them a kind of budget exit-row. These seats fill up quickly so book early when possible.

Food:


 

Hello, breakfast. Photo by Rowena of
Rubber Slippers in Italy, licensed
through Creative Commons

 

My advice for eating on BA flights is exactly the opposite of what I said about eating on Air Canada flights – the standard meals are surprisingly edible and the kosher and halal options are to be avoided at all costs unless you’re worried about upsetting your imaginary friend in the sky. That’s not to say the standard meals are good, exactly, just that they’re better than what you get aboard Air Canada. As for the other options, I’ve only tried the kosher meal but it was bad enough that you should steer clear unless you are certain Yahweh exists and is going to pound his fist up your backside should you step wrong.

While you’re fighting off heartburn, in first class Jay-Z and the manager of his hedge fund choose from a number of meal options served, according to the BA site “...formally on an exquisitely dressed table with crisp white linen and fine bone china...” They also have the option of afternoon tea, complete with cakes and tiny sandwiches. Your meals will taste considerably better if you try not to think about this.

Tea, coffee, juice and bar service are gratis throughout the flight for all classes.

Final thought:

The British like to gripe about BA but before you let that convince you to fly another airline, remember that complaining is an integral part of U.K. culture and not to be taken too seriously. That’s not a dig at the English – I’d grouse too if in the span of 100 years I went from ruling half the civilized world to producing the Family Beckham and The Only Way is Essex.

This is the way the world ends

 


As far as intercontinental travel goes, British Airways has never steered me wrong – my flights have always been on time, have never crashed into mountains/buildings/oceans and most importantly, have always had seatback televisions. If you’re going to sit in a chair in the sky, trust in the British - you’ll pay a few dollars more but it’s worth every penny.

Check back next Wednesday for the word on freighter cruises.

Part 1: Getting Started

Part 2: Before You Go

Part 3: Getting There - Air Canada

Part 4: Getting There - Air Transat

Part 5: Getting There - British Airways

Part 6: Getting There - Freighter Cruises

Part 7: Surviving Heathrow Airport

Why fly when can you take 20 times longer for three times the price?
Photo by Mike Baird, licensed through Creative Commons

Part 1: Getting Started

Part 2: Before You Go
Part 3: Getting There - Air Canada
Part 4: Getting There - Air Transat
Part 5: Getting There - British Airways
Part 6: Getting There - Freighter Cruises
Part 7: Surviving Heathrow Airport

Once upon time, if a young man suffered from wanderlust or a failure to fully comprehend the rhythm method, fleeing his quaint coastal hometown was a simple matter. All he had to do was run, preferably under cover of darkness, to the dockyard and beg for a job on the first freighter bound for Sheik Yarbouti. Once onboard he was free to enjoy a lifetime on the open sea, never again to worry about personal responsibility or any kind of basic human comfort.

Over time, the slow encroachment of unions and maritime laws has made it tougher to escape your mistakes by sea. Now the experience of traveling on a seagoing freighter is limited to those who thoughtfully joined the Seafarers International Union before “forgetting” their prophylactics and independent-minded tourists who have time and money to burn.

And so, having covered some options for flying the friendly skies, in this installment of "So You Want to Go to England" we takes a look at this considerably less popular alternative to air travel.

Where once you could pay your way across the ocean with the sweat of your brow, the high seas are now more interested in a pound of flesh – freighter cruises will run you anywhere from $65-$150 a day. Freighters bound for the UK leave from the eastern United States (Philadelphia, New Orleans and New York are a few ports of call) and take just over two weeks to reach English shores, which puts you in the $1100 US range (one-way) before tax.

That price does include meals but menu options are limited to whatever the crew is eating, which, depending on where they’re from, could be an adventure for the more sheltered among you.

 

You should be so lucky

What that price doesn't include is the cost of getting yourself to the port you’re planning to depart from or the cost of putting yourself up if your boat is delayed, which isn't uncommon with freighter voyages. As always, check Hotwire or Hotels.com for the best deal on hotels if you're stuck for a few nights, or if you're feeling Bohemian, curl up under a bridge somewhere.

"May I take your wallet, sir?"

 

Cabins on freighter cruises are generally spacious - equal in size and comfort to mid-range accommodation on a standard cruise ship – have at least one large window and, best of all, their own bathroom. This saves you from worrying about two weeks spent sharing a toilet with heavily tattooed sailors named Orlov who demand to watch you pee.

 

 

There are no onboard amenities except for a place to buy cheap cigarettes and alcohol (bring cash), there is sweet bugger-all to do (bring books) and instead of four-thousand fellow seafarers being herded from one buffet to another, you will have at most 11 other passengers to keep you company.


And they're all going to look like this

Why only 12 passengers, you ask? Because any more than that and the ship is required to have a doctor on board. Ask your travel insurance provider whether or not your policy covers death at sea caused by an all-Russian crew’s inability to understand “my left arm is tingling."

 

"I cannot understand him but I think he is saying,
'Take my cigarettes and throw me overboard, comrades.'"


Freighter passengers are likely to be independent-minded travelers who have seen their fair share of the world and could have some great stories to keep you occupied. They could also be “travel bores” who have seen the world and learned nothing from it save the human body’s upper limits for alcohol absorption. Whatever the case they are likely to be extremely pretentious and before long you'll be grateful for the lock on your cabin door.

 

"No, we don't have many friends. We think it's because we're too edgy."


Below you’ll find a table of UK ports where your freighter may dock, their distance, by train, from London’s Paddington Station, and the approximate cost. Costs are listed in pounds sterling (£),are current as of this writing and represent the cheapest ticket on offer – prices and availability will fluctuate with time of day. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, Paddington is used for reference because, as a tourist – even a rufty-tufty freighter one – London is the place you’ll likely want to see first. Then onward to Wigan.

 

Port Distance from London by train Approximate Cost
Bristol 1h37m – 2h30m £35
Felixstowe 2h46m £38.40
Liverpool 2h45m – 3h £52
Southampton 1h23m – 2h £34.10
Tilbury 1h30m £12
Weymouth 3h-4h £39.50

 

Freighter trips are not as easily booked as the booze cruise you took last summer – arrangements will have to be made through a travel agent who deals specifically with freighter lines. This list from Cruise Ship Portal is a good place to start looking or spend some time on sites like GoNomad learning from people who have made the journey themselves.

Finally, a reminder that freighter schedules are not set in stone so even though your voyage has to be booked months ahead of time, there may be complications that delay your departure by days – even weeks. But try not to worry, Orlov will still be waiting.

Part 1: Getting Started

Part 2: Before You Go

Part 3: Getting There - Air Canada

Part 4: Getting There - Air Transat

Part 5: Getting There - British Airways

Part 6: Getting There - Freighter Cruises

Part 7: Surviving Heathrow Airport

 

You made it

Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, widely considered to be the safest in the world, uses a sophisticated passenger screening system headed by college graduates who coolly screen travelers for “micro-expressions” which may hint at nefarious intent – by contrast, the U.K. Border Agency (and the TSA in America, for that matter) employs a network of po-faced ungulates still seething over not being invited to prom. So don’t take it personally when, upon your arrival in England, the U.K. Border Agency treats you like you’ve just arrived from Malawi with several sticks of T.N.T., a pound of cocaine and eight undocumented immigrants concealed somewhere on your person. Or like you're Madonna.

 

"You guys still believe I'm English, right?"

When dealing with customs agents it’s important to pretend you checked your sense of humor along with your baggage; these people see thousands of passengers a day and have heard every joke you can imagine at least three times. Be prepared to tell them exactly how long you plan on being in the country, where you’re staying and why you’re going – even first-class passengers can count on getting the third degree. In a way, that’s the beauty of airports - how many other places in the world offer you the opportunity to be treated like a king and a sheepstealer within the same sixty minute span? It’s like living through The Prince and the Pauper if it had a scene where another man roughly probes Prince Edward’s “Hendon Hall” looking for controlled substances.

 

Yes, that means exactly what you think it does.

 

With an area of 12.3 square kilometres (4.7m2) Heathrow Airport isn’t even a tenth the size of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahad International, the world’s biggest airport (780km2/301m2), but in 2011 it was the third busiest in the world with some 69,000,000 passengers. For the die-hard statisticians out there, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has been number 1 in passenger volume since 1998 with almost 90,000,000 arrivals and departures in 2011.


King Fahad. Is it an airport? A shopping mall?
No one cared enough to ask

What all this means is that once you clear Blue Peter at customs you will be buffeted by thousands of confused passengers from all walks of life who are eager to get on with their lives. Some will have friends or family waiting for them to arrive, others will be lonely buggers like you, nursing indigestion and towing a mountain of Samsonite cases as you shamble sadly towards the transit exits.

Getting from Heathrow into central London is relatively easy and cheap, depending on your level of patience. Below I’ll list the major options along with some pros and cons. Be aware that if London is not your first stop then the best thing you can do is a catch a bus from Heathrow’s Central station; it saves you wasting the time going all the way into central London only to come back out again. Bus options are covered below

The Underground:

 

At approximately £5 one-way, the London Underground, or tube (“chewb” if you speak the Queen’s) is the most cost-effective way into the city. The stations are located on the lower level of the central area between Terminals 1,2,3 and Terminal 5 (follow the signs from the arrivals area) and ticket machines are similar to those used for transit in most major cities, accepting both cash (U.K. only) and credit card. Room for luggage is not generous so this is a poor option if you’ve brought your steamer trunk full of Cashmere sweaters. Travel time is approximately 50-60 minutes.

Heathrow Connect

Heathrow Connect is a direct rail service between Heathrow Central station and London’s Paddington Station. Cost is £8.50 and travel time is 25 minutes. If your flight lands at Terminal 5 you’ll want to take the Heathrow Express train to the central station and change onto the Connect. Taking the Express into the city is considerably more expensive but travel between terminals is free.
The Heathrow Connect offers the best balance between cost and travel time.

Heathrow Express

At 15 minutes, the Express is the fastest option for travel between Heathrow and Paddington. The cost (£18 one way/£32 return) is more than double that of the Connect but buys you a more comfortable ride, wireless internet, abundant baggage space and, according to their site, the option of using your mobile phone while traveling through tunnels. I’m suspicious of how many tunnels you could possibly pass through in 15 minutes but that’s just me.

National Express

For those of you not visiting London, National Express, England’s premier coach service is your best choice. To be clear, “coach” is what the English call a “bus”; this service does not help you meet Craig T. Nelson.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing

Fares vary by destination but all tickets can be booked online at the National Express site and either printed or picked up at the Heathrow Central Bus Station. If you’re flying with BA and arriving into Terminal 5 you’re better off printing your ticket as otherwise you’ll have to get off the bus at Central and have it printed.

Taxi

A taxi into central London will take about an hour and cost from £40-£70 ($65-$113), making its only real advantages door-to-door service and not having to run the Proletarian obstacle course that is public transit. London cabbies have a reputation for being chatty and that may take some adjustment if you’ve become accustomed to taxies driven by Indian men shouting into their cell phone as they ignore you.

Now, after 5-10 hours of being violently shaken in a flying metal tube you may not feel all that social but that will make little to no difference to your driver. Once I took a cab to the emergency ward at one of London’s hospitals and as I clutched myself in agony the driver helpfully explained the history of every building we passed.

Now that you’re on your way into London the fun can begin.  You're on your own from here.

Part 1: Getting Started

Part 2: Before You Go

Part 3: Getting There - Air Canada

Part 4: Getting There - Air Transat

Part 5: Getting There - British Airways

Part 6: Getting There - Freighter Cruises

Part 7: Surviving Heathrow Airport

 

On September 9th I began my drive down to Las Vegas to blog the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition. This six-part series of posts chronicles the people and places along my trip down Veteran's Memorial Highway 95.

Full blog coverage can be found at http://largelythetruthmrolympia.wordpress.com/

 

 

ontheboat

 

My trip officially started this afternoon at the Washington State Ferries terminal in Sidney, B.C. when the U.S. customs officer asked where I was headed.
“I’m headed down to Vegas to catch the Mr. Olympia competition.”

It was the first time I’d seen anyone fall asleep standing. I guess not everyone has my appreciation of the unusual things in life. Taking back my passport I pulled into lane 9 and shut off the car.

The ferry wasn’t due to leave for Friday Harbour & Anacortes until 5:55pm, which left me a little over 80 minutes. It was only 82 degrees but on the tarmac of the ferry ramp it felt hotter and so I moved into the shade of the small gift shop/cafeteria at the rear of the ferry line-up.

Inside, shelves were lined with the expected fuzzy sweaters and Canadian-themed shot glasses. I don’t know when these became ubiquitous but given all the hand-wringing about binge drinking it says a lot that transit hubs still sell them. Call them decorative all you want but we both know that their sole purpose is to expedite the delivery of alcohol to your beleaguered liver. Should marijuana ever be legalized I’m looking forward to seeing our ferry terminals and airports proudly displaying their collection of novelty Canadian bongs underneath a wallpaper of “stop toking” ads.

The counterman was trying to sell a group of tourists on blueberry scones ‘fresh from the oven’. Someone finally took the bait but specified the scone at the very bottom of the pile and the look on his face was worth paying what I did for a hot dog & a bottle of Coke.

Afterward, I finished my food at one of the shaded picnic tables and took a walk through the lanes back to my car. Most people were stewing in their vehicles, tapping away on their phones, reading the newspaper or arguing, just for something to do. A pretty young American couple sat on the tailgate of their truck eating food from a blue and white Coleman cooler, their bronzed skin somehow impervious to the heat.

A while later, a man in the Nissan next to me took a break from playing with his car’s electronic locks and turned on a mambo CD, which wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn't been keeping time by loudly slapping his steering wheel. Every now and again he would look to his long-suffering wife and loudly lament how all the great mambo kings were dead. By the time our ferry, the Chelan, began loading I was prepared to send Mr. Mambo Nissan to join them.

On board the Chelan

Post Index:

Part 1: Get on the Boat, Son
Part 2: Radio Nowhere
Part 3: By the Side of the Road
Part 4: Cthulhu & the Dirty Shame
Part 5: Like a Bat Out of Hell
Part 6: Love Me, I'm a Liberal

Friday, 08 March 2013 04:34

The Road to Olympia, Part 2: Radio Nowhere

Written by

photo 2

 

That old familiar road trip feeling – a spreading sense of wonder & possibility – didn’t settle over me until about an hour into the voyage, after I watched the sun set over San Juan Island’s Friday Harbor. My spirit rose at the idea I was off to see places I had never seen and drive roads I had never driven. In celebration I decided to browse the duty-free.

San Juan Island has had a long and storied history which includes being home to one of the longest running wars on American soil that didn’t cause unnecessary delay in airports and of course the famed “Pig War” that you should look up because it was called the Pig War. Friday Harbor itself was supposedly named for Joseph Poalie Friday, a Hawaiian in the employ of (then) island owner the Hudson Bay Company. As the Chelan set off towards a rose-hued horizon I realized that this more or less meaningless gesture (“British colonists may have brought about the ruin and subjugation of your homeland and people but hey – we named a sheep station after you”) would turn out to mimic western foreign policy throughout most of the 20th century.

Night had fallen by the time our ferry reached the dock at Anacortes. I started making my way through darkened residential streets (I despise interstates and avoid them whenever possible) toward my destination for the evening, the Homestead Inn & Suites in Bellevue, Washington. During a pit stop on the Swinomish Indian Reservation I saw what may have been Skagit County’s most dilapidated functional automobile – some nameless four-door beast, vast in the way only American cars can be, painted the same shade of green as my grandparents’ bathroom.

It was covered at intervals in patches of rust, with a roof that had faded from black to a Library of Congress gray. Despite being rundown, the car somehow retained an air of dignity and sunset splendor, like an elderly drag queen. It certainly caught the eye of the overweight Latino women who had gathered in their Friday best outside the liquor store to get a solid buzz going before heading to the nearby casino. They tottered over unsteadily on too-tall heels to coo at the driver, an angular middle-aged man with iron grey hair cut close to the skin, while he polished the windshield. Never let it be said that small-town Friday nights are boring.

On my way off the reservation I found George Noory’s Coast to Coast on the AM band and kept it there as the miles slipped by. Coast to Coast is talk radio specializing in the kind of things that only make sense after the sun goes down – alien abduction, ESP and government conspiracy theories, to name a few. Tonight Noory’s guest was David Ruben, a modestly famous “life coach” and firm believer in “precognitive dreams” – dreams that are windows into the future. Ruben maintains that just such a dream had helped him save the life of his son.

As I joined the interstate for the final stretch into Bellevue, Coast to Coast’s signal started to fade and every cloverleaf that passed overhead brought with it a wave of static washing across Ruben’s voice like waves breaking over the bow of a ship. His thoughts on the continuance of life after death slowly began to disappear among the screeching phantom voices that live in the space between radio signals. I’m far too practical to take any of what Ruben says seriously but all the same, every time the rolling static took more of the signal and the in-betweeners screamed in triumph a chill ran down my spine. It was a comfort that my motel was only a few miles away.

Now I understand why no one listens to the radio anymore.

Photo by Nick Fisher, licensed through Creative Commons

Post Index:

Part 1: Get on the Boat, Son
Part 2: Radio Nowhere
Part 3: By the Side of the Road
Part 4: Cthulhu & the Dirty Shame
Part 5: Like a Bat Out of Hell
Part 6: Love Me, I'm a Liberal

 

 

Lil Jons Diner, Bellingham
 

Leaving Bellingham with a stomach-full of breakfast quiche that wouldn’t have made the cut in a retirement home cafeteria wasn’t the best way to start my September 11 but it was all I had. The restaurant recommended to me by the motel desk clerk turned out to have a 40 minute wait, unless I wanted to sit in the lounge next to the loud, pudgy blonde who had already started drinking. I didn’t. Instead I ended up eating the unfortunate quiche at a nearby Tully’s Coffee, just around the corner from Deseret Books (now selling the Mormon-approved Harry Potter alternative “Janitors”, in case you’re interested).

My target for the day was John Day, Oregon and traffic was heavy as I drove I-90 east. All the things I love about interstates – sudden lane changes, yuppies in SUVs whose engine power far exceeds their driving capabilities, and the idiots going too slow infuriating the idiots who want to go too fast – were in abundance until traffic thinned out just short of Ellensburg, which was, fittingly, when I had to break south.

Green forest gave way to sunbaked yellow grass as the landscape changed and the mercury rose. Just south of Yakima there was a family clustered next to a car that had broken down by the side of the road. The eldest son, a tall, slim, bespectacled kid in a yellow T-shirt was holding up a small handwritten sign and even though I couldn’t read it at speed I more or less knew the content: “It’s broke, we’re hot, this sucks. Please.” I kept driving and I don’t know why – I can still see that poor kid standing in the sun with a disappointed look on his face as hundreds of people drove their air-conditioned cocoons past him and his family.

In 2001, America was rocked by a sucker punch that shook the country and its people out of their insular, capitalist stupor. It reminded them that the people around them were neighbors and friends rather than competitors, stepping stones or dangerous lunatics. Ten years later, to the day, and no one, myself included, could remember that message long enough to stop for a family of five in obvious need of help.But hey – they remembered to put up flags along the highway.

The interstate eventually gave way to state highways, long, empty roads through farmland that stretched off to the horizon. The sky was a dark grey, threatening rain, and the air was rich with the smell of soil and raw onions. Dump trucks filled with these, thousands of fresh, fragrant bulbs would pass by at intervals and the smell would become almost overpowering.

As I passed into Oregon the smell of farmland faded and the temperature rose to to the low 90s, which was cool in comparison to the previous weeks according to Mike, a gas station attendant in Pendleton. Oregon is one of only two US states, New Jersey is the other, that doesn’t allow you to pump your own gas, and so Mike’s job is to run around outside in 100 degree heat for 9 hours while enjoying the heady smell of gasoline.

“This is fine,” he said, sweating and lying through his teeth. ”The breeze helps.”

Just outside of the Battle Mountain Forest on Highway 395 I saw another drama played out by the side of the road. A bright white motorcycle lay on its side at the edge of the gravel and EMTs were clustered in the high grass just beyond. Next to the ambulance was a cop car, it’s flashing blue and red lights unnatural among the yellows and greys of the landscape. Three other motorcycles were parked further down the highway, their riders standing together just behind the EMT crews. It looked like a group of white-collar guys on a motorcycle trip and their faces had the hollow, disbelieving looks of people who have never seen something go so bad so fast.

 

 

 

Post Index:

Part 1: Get on the Boat, Son
Part 2: Radio Nowhere
Part 3: By the Side of the Road
Part 4: Cthulhu & the Dirty Shame
Part 5: Like a Bat Out of Hell
Part 6: Love Me, I'm a Liberal

 

 

 

It was late afternoon by the time I arrived in John Day, Oregon via highway 395. The light had taken on a beautiful golden tint you sometimes see at the end of the day – the kind that can make a garbage dump look like Venice in the spring.
395 turns into John Day’s main street, with most of downtown lining either side. Signs welcoming home 3 local boys from their tours of duty in Afghanistan were up in every window and there were yellow ribbons around the trees. Unlike Fox and Dale, two down-at-heel hamlets I’d passed through earlier in the day, John Day, seemed like a pleasant, welcoming example of Small Town America.

The first crack in that facade came when I pulled into my motel, the Little Pine Inn at the far end of downtown.

 

Looks nice, right?


On the outside it looked no worse than anywhere else I’ve ever stayed. Sure, the rough-looking woman who checked me in had a voice like Captain Beefheart and the only other guest was a bearded man who claimed to live in the mountains but I wrote it all off as part of being in a blue collar town well off the beaten track. Then I saw my room.


Where is your God now?

 

“Lived in” is one way to describe it, “I expected to find Bob Crane’s tenderized corpse in the bathroom” is another. The brown shag carpet was long enough to hide a marijuana grow-op from passing helicopters, several of the lights didn’t work and everything was covered in what is best described as a thin film made up of equal parts dirt and neglect. When I looked in the bathroom what I saw made me wish I’d found Hogan’s moldering corpse instead. Radiating out from the toilet’s base was a thick ring of accumulated dirt (I refuse to believe it was anything more) and nothing, from the sink to the shower stall, was quite what I’d call clean.

 

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!"


After dropping my luggage and vigorously washing my hands I set off down Main Street to find dinner. The sun was now almost fully set save for a pink band where the mountains met the sky. The downtown that had, not two hours before, felt like a living advertisement for war bonds now felt like a small seaside town an in H.P. Lovecraft story right before something tentacled rose from the sea and caused everyone to require fresh underpants.

The Mayberry facade cracked and fell apart when I noticed that in many of the windows – right next to the signs welcoming home John Day’s troops – was another sign forbidding entry to anyone displaying neo-Nazi apparel or tattoos. They warned that in the eyes of the community everyone was created equal and hate would not be tolerated. Suddenly I regretted shaving my head before leaving home.
Just then, as if to drive the point home, a scrawny twenty-something with a shaved head and swastika tattoo on his bicep rode past on a bicycle. I guessed John Day, like a lot of towns that have seen better days, was having a hard time keeping its young men occupied when work ran thin.

Dinner was beer and pizza in the Dirty Shame Saloon, not far from the motel.

img 5540 2


And I'm pretty sure the pizza gave me food poisoning.


It was your typical small-town watering hole where the menu incorporates the entire nutritional pyramid (pizza, hamburgers, chicken, deep-fried) and the locals eye you up as you walk in.

Ever paranoid I sat with my back to the wall and ate while a fat woman in a tie-dyed T-shirt sang along with the jukebox. To distract myself I set my mind to figuring out whether the mullet-sporting person who kind of looked like Meat Loaf in the video for “I’d Do Anything For Love” and was stood at the far end of the bar was a woman or a man. After 20 minutes I failed to come away with an answer.

When Aretha was done at the jukebox I could suddenly hear a group of middle-aged tourists at a nearby table discussing “The Celestine Prophecy”, a 1993 novel full of New-Age hooey. The conversation was more literate than I was expecting, given that the book has less intellectual value than “Go Dog Go”. Then one of the participants said, “I’d rather read a list of quotes than an entire book” & I realized I wasn’t listening to people, I was listening to organic tape recorders.

Then I heard “Where love rules there is no will to power” and decided it was a good time to head back to the motel.

 

Where I was murdered. The way my stomach feels right now I only wish I was joking.

Post Index:

Part 1: Get on the Boat, Son
Part 2: Radio Nowhere
Part 3: By the Side of the Road
Part 4: Cthulhu & the Dirty Shame
Part 5: Like a Bat Out of Hell
Part 6: Love Me, I'm a Liberal

 

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"You spelled it how?  You're fired."

The last thing I did before leaving for Nevada the next day was wash my car.  It’s not that I thought it was going to stay clean on the drive to Winnemucca but I wanted to make sure I washed off every trace of John Day before advancing further. I was going to burn my laundry too but my car has suffered enough without the added indignity of coming into contact with my bare ass.

 

See you in Hell


Fittingly, the car wash was the second worst I’ve come across. The soap smelled like the chemical development team had started off aiming for “lilac” but given up somewhere around “How long has this sandwich been behind the radiator?” It did the job but only after the investment of six dollars and about a dozen passes with what may be the western world’s feeblest foaming brush.

I hit the highway at speeds that would have made the protagonist from Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” look like he was driving a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade. Trees, mailboxes and hitchhikers whizzed past as I desperately tried to out run whatever white trash Wendigo haunts that town.

This haste was to blame for the lives I took – for my becoming a murderer. A mass murderer, really. In my defense it’s hardly my fault – these hapless victims should have known better than to wander directly into the path of a man recklessly fleeing a Mayberry so awful that Andy Griffith would have eaten Opie at birth as an act of mercy.

The victims in question were hundreds of small white butterflies that swarmed the road at several points in the Malheur National Forest. At first I thought there were tiny balls of fluff bouncing off my windshield, then I looked closely and noticed they had wings.

I do not know how many of them I killed but should there ever come a day when butterflies rule the earth I will be the first against the wall.

Crossing into Nevada was a relief – not only was I able to put Oregon’s weak-kneed speed limits behind me but I was pretty sure that the Wendigo’s house-arrest anklet would stop him from crossing state lines.

 

I have no more affection for the desert than I do any other climate that will kill you without taking the slightest notice but I concede that it has a grandeur all it’s own with jagged outcroppings of rock silhouetted against the sky and the way shadows of clouds lay across the mountains like drop cloths.

It’s not all grand, of course. Much of it is, as my Saskatchewan-born grandfather once said of his own home, “as flat as piss on a plate”, and driving through it can become wearing over several hours. At one point the boredom became so acute I found myself listening to finance shill Dave Ramsey‘s radio show and being deeply concerned about the fate of those calling in. I actually teared up after one caller confessed that her husband was adamant about keeping their new truck, even though the prohibitive monthly payment meant they would lose the house they currently shared with their children.

The shedding of a tear not related to immediate physical injury or the loss of a sporting contest shocked me out of my stupor and I snapped off the radio. To reclaim my masculinity I turned up the CD player and sang along to “Sylvia’s Mother” until I arrived in Winnemucca. Before you talk smack about Dr. Hook all I have to say is this – there is nothing more distinctly male than trying to talk your way past a woman’s mother.

 

 

My hotel room at Winner’s Casino would have been unremarkable under normal circumstances but after the Little Pine Inn it felt like the Taj Mahal - ”I can walk around in my bare feet? I don’t need to sleep in my clothes? I have arrived in life.”

 

And in rarefied company no less

Post Index:

Part 1: Get on the Boat, Son
Part 2: Radio Nowhere
Part 3: By the Side of the Road
Part 4: Cthulhu & the Dirty Shame
Part 5: Like a Bat Out of Hell
Part 6: Love Me, I'm a Liberal

 

 

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During my drive to Las Vegas, the Veteran’s Memorial Highway brought me through ahandful of Indian Reservations. I’m not particularly educated on the state of Indian-Government relations but I’ve read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and I’m a fan of Ward Churchill so I have at least a baseline understanding of the savage, locker-room rogering that was Manifest Destiny. All the same, actually seeing the Godless stretches of sun-withered rock that the government assigned to its defeated enemy really drives the point home in a way that books can’t.

Though I know full well that the Indian people had no voice in the decision I imagine that the U.S. Government, having thoroughly won the American Indian Wars, called forth a representative from the surviving tribes when it was time to assign living space:

U.S. Government: That is some lovely property you all were living on, wasn’t it?

Indian Representative: Yes, that is why we liked living there.

U.S. Government: Well, we need it

Indian Representative: For what?!

U.S. Government: Stuff.

Indian Representative: What stuff?

U.S. Government: Jamba Juices, hockey rinks, hot dog stands. White people stuff.

Indian Representative: But what about us?

U.S. Government: That’s what I wanted to talk to you about! Using the most scientific methods currently available we have located the absolute worst parcels of sandblasted hell in America

Indian Representative: Why?

U.S.G: Because we want to give them to you!

Indian Representative: I’m sorry?

U.S.G.: So you can live there, silly! All of you. Bring sunscreen.

Indian Representative: I have a few reservations about this.

U.S.G.: Great! That’s what we’ll call them. Now get out of here you crazy kid. Remember what I said about sunscreen.

Indian Representative: But I don’t…is that a shotgun?
U.S.G.: I said get

Since NPR liked to disappear on me whenever I got interested in a subject, thoughts like this were all I had to keep me company. I’d given up on country radio after hearing Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw” three days running. It’s a catchy song and I’m not particularly sensitive but every time I heard “You can find me in my wigwam /I’ll be beatin’ on my tom-tom / Pull out the pipe and smoke you some / Hey and pass it around” I wanted to throw up.

A mild diversion came when I saw a sign advertising a Wildlife Viewing Area. The last several hours of driving had brought me endless vistas of windswept hardpan and I was a little sceptical as whether any wildlife not existing solely at the microscopic level could possibly thrive here. A tour guide would have to be a Zoloft-popping mixture of cock-eyed optimist and Spalding Grey to sell that particular Wildlife Viewing Experience:

“Here in front of us we have some rocks, heavy ones by the look of them. To our left if you look closely you can see more rocks, one of which looks like an anvil. Oh! Look! Just over there I thought I saw…no, no…that was a rock too. Isn’t this fun? Who else could go for a Jamba Juice?”

Night had fallen by the time I got close to Vegas and traffic had fallen off to almost nothing. As Highway 95 slipped by beneath the moonlight I had a look at the map and realized I was driving parallel to Department of Defense land. Then it hit me – this wasn’t just any DoD land – this was the Nevada Test Site, formerly Nevada Proving Ground, one of two nuclear testing sites used by America during the Cold War. Hey, I read books.

From 1951-1992 over 1,000 nuclear devices were tested on-site, often resulting in fallout that insisted on ruining the day (and genetic material) of anyone who happened to be downwind. These blessed souls are cheerfully called “Downwinders” by those who take an interest in the subject – I imagine this is because “Boy Howdy, You Are Boned-ers” is too much of a buzzkill. Over the years there were a number of settlements paid out by the government although the official figures are apparently well-hidden.

Scenes from The Hills Have Eyes came flooding into my head and in desperation I reached for the radio. Even “Indian Outlaw” was better than that.

Post Index:

Part 1: Get on the Boat, Son
Part 2: Radio Nowhere
Part 3: By the Side of the Road
Part 4: Cthulhu & the Dirty Shame
Part 5: Like a Bat Out of Hell
Part 6: Love Me, I'm a Liberal

 

Sunday, 09 June 2013 04:56

North on 19: Traffic and the Savage Sky

Written by

 

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This weekend my wife and I drove up island to Campbell River to visit my mother. We used to visit once every few months but since my stepfather’s passing in March we've made the trip - some 260km - more frequently.

We had planned to leave Friday afternoon at 2, which we thought would allow us to beat the inevitable after-work traffic jam that clogs up the westbound road out of Victoria and in no way indicates a need for commuter rail. As it turned out, we were almost right – we had made it as far as the beginning of the Malahat highway, where traffic bottlenecks on a good day, to discover a construction crew busily increasing to three the number of lanes which have to frantically merge into one thirty feet later. Traffic slowed to a standstill and we had plenty of time to reflect on how peaceful our up-island trips used to be when Via Rail was still running.

In my more optimistic moments I imagine a day when some kind of light rail service gives commuters in the GVRD a way to work that doesn’t involve sweltering on asphalt while a chopped Harley Davidson four feet away plays you the song of its people but such a utopia is unlikely.

Victoria would like to be thought of as a forward-thinking city and with all the tattooed yogis wandering around you’d almost fall for it – until, that is, someone makes a suggestion towards improving infrastructure in any meaningful way.

Flagrant pork barrel projects abound – the Johnson Street Bridge Project, for example, or Langford’s infamous$35 million Bridge to Nowhere which at that moment was looming monolithically out of the heat shimmer ahead of us – but float the idea of funding potentially useful projects like commuter rail, bus lanes or sewage treatment and watch as those placid yoga bunnies start frothing about taxes and big government like the mad love child of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones.

Hours later, traffic jams were well behind us as we burned our way up Highway 19 toward Campbell River under a leaden sky. That stretch of road, called the Inland Island Highway, has as many personalities as a hormonal teenager and they run about the same range, from ethereal and gentle to a shocking darkness suggestive of knowledge older and deeper than you expected or were prepared for. The drabness above was hardly the best Highway 19 had to offer but it was far from the worst we’d experienced.

The day my stepfather died we left Victoria for Campbell River as soon as work allowed but the usual gauntlet of traffic and construction meant we were making the final leg as the March sun began to set and it was much worse than we’d expected; the only things not obscured by driving snow, wind and rain were the too-dim tail lights of the grit truck ahead, the payload of which threatened to crack our windshield if we followed too closely. When the grit truck finally turned off and the clouds lifted we were left alone on that long, empty road with the most savage sunset I’ve ever seen.

It wasn't the delirious conflagration of orange, red and yellow I always associate with the word – the sunset that caps off long summer days like a blessing. Instead, as we drove north and daylight waned, the sky ahead of us was a deep Tyrian purple, with nothing delirious about it- it felt ancient, predatory and deliberate, like movement in the shadows beyond a campfire.

The configuration of Highway 19, the "Inland Island Highway" that links Parksville to Campbell River, is such that the only things you see, aside from the road in front of you, are trees and sky, with the former set so far back the latter seems to occupy every inch of your vision, so close you could touch it or, on nights like that, it could touch you. Driving north on the empty Inland Island Highway the night my stepfather died I felt completely exposed, as though the road was offering us up to that cold sky. When the pressing need for a gas station forced us off Highway 19 onto the old highway, which hugs the waterline under heavy tree cover, I couldn’t have been more relieved.

Given all that, it’s not hard to see why some grey clouds on Friday afternoon were of little consequence. In fact, whatever grimness the grey sky may have held was relieved by bright sprays of yellow and blue wildflowers all along the side of the road. The sun finally made an appearance just as we were pulling off the highway at Campbell River and the blooms, already vibrant, practically glowed in the light.

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